Study Guide

The Acharnians

by Aristophanes

The Acharnians Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Thematically, The Acharnians is the most inclusive of Aristophanes’ plays; in it audiences find his powerful wit and satire against militarism and war, his contempt for petty politicians and informers, his delight in earthy sex play, and his spirited spoofing of Euripides—qualities that make it the most personal of Aristophanes’ works. When Dicaeopolis speaks directly to the audience, he does so with the voice of Aristophanes, eloquently asserting his intellectual honesty and independence and declaring that he will always fight for the cause of peace and justice. Aristophanes directed the play and acted in it, taking the part of the protagonist.

Presented in 425 b.c.e., The Acharnians is the earliest surviving play of Aristophanes, who began his career as a dramatist in 427. The play is set in the sixth year of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.), which was fought by Athens and Sparta. The conflict had already inflicted grave hardship on Athens. Some Athenians apparently wished to pursue the war more aggressively to exact revenge on Sparta. The protagonist of The Acharnians, Dicaeopolis, takes a different approach and concludes a private peace treaty with the Spartans. Much of the play depicts the opposition to Dicaeopolis’s treaty and the way in which the hero thwarts his opponents and sets about enjoying the rewards of his private peace.

Most plays of Aristophanes are built around some great idea, which is a plan undertaken by the main character to remedy some unsatisfactory political or private situation. This fantastic project is the main character’s way of setting things right, and he or she usually encounters strong opposition to the proposal. Overcoming this opposition, the protagonist eventually implements the plan, and the good (or bad) consequences follow. The role of the great idea in The Acharnians is somewhat different: Dicaeopolis achieves his object—a private peace treaty with Sparta—very early in the play. For the remainder of the play he rebuffs his opponents and enthusiastically enjoys the benefits of his treaty. The result is an apparently lopsided dramatic structure. Aristophanes bypasses the usual dramatic struggle regarding implementing the plan and indulges instead in broad satire of leading Athenians of his day, such as Cleon, Lamachus, and the poet Euripides. Another consequence of this design is a lingering impression of...

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